The votes are in for the May 15 election of the second City Commissioner seat, with Nick Fish emerging victorious. Although the incumbent’s domination of polls was expected, his victory came in the face of adversity from personal issues and growing political pressure from the far left. Meanwhile, runner-up Julia DeGraw emerged as a clear stand-out among Fish’s challengers, bringing attention to faults within Portland politics and proving the viability of Southeast candidacy in a Southwest-dominated system.
The city’s widespread support for Fish was well known. His star-studded roster of endorsements ranged from local newspapers like The Oregonian and Willamette Week to The Asian Pacific Network of Oregon and the Portland Fire Fighters. In past elections, he faced little competition.
His first shot at office came after a special election in 2008, where he won by a margin of nearly 40 percent. Two years later when Fish ran for a full term, he widened the gap to roughly 70 percent. In 2014, Fish continued to control local favor with 73 percent of votes.
Fish has been praised by supporters for such policies as the creation of the Portland Housing Bureau and help in passing an affordable housing bond. Although far left pressure has grown against his corporate funding and sometimes centrist inclinations, he has remained in solid standings.
Trouble arose in August 2017, when Fish announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. However, he was determined to continue his public service, he told voters over Facebook. “I am in good hands at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute,” he said. “My doctors have prescribed regular outpatient chemotherapy treatments… The medicine will weaken my immune system, but should not prevent me from continuing to serve on the City Council.” In September 2017, Fish announced his plans to run again despite continuing health issues.
Meanwhile, Julia DeGraw, an activist who fought Nestlé’s attempts to bottle water in the Gorge, announced a campaign of her own in mid-2017. Within it, she would advocate for new policies like equal access to internet and greater environmental responsibility.
Most notably, DeGraw called for a complete restructuring of the election process. Currently, candidates are chosen in city-wide elections, which has led to mostly Southwestern-led government. “The wealthiest folks generally live on the west side of town… The at-large election system is based in the Jim Crow era,” she said. “One of the reasons that at-large election systems were created was that they set a very high bar—it’s very hard to win an at-large election, [and] it requires a lot of money.”
Joining Fish and DeGraw in the race for office were Philip Wolfe, an advocate for other deaf people, and Nicholas Sutton, who was vocal about dissatisfaction with past city officials. All candidates shared similar ambitions and values in resolving the housing crisis and creating greater equity, as is representative of the firmly liberal policies of Portland politics.
Candidates’ platforms differed primarily in methodology. Julia DeGraw, for example, criticized how Fish and his colleagues have historically ignored certain neighborhoods. “[Southeast voters] were promised that they would reap all the rewards of being part of the city [when their areas were annexed in the 70s, but] in 40 years, they have yet to see most of those rewards. They’re paying taxes like everyone else, and they’re not getting roads, they’re not getting sidewalks.”
In the lead-up to the 2018 election, the rise in protests and the lasting implications of the Bernie Sanders campaign created a demand for self-sustained and people-oriented politicians. As DeGraw said, “All my donations are from the unions that have endorsed my campaign or individual contributions from individuals. We absolutely need to get big money out of politics. [Fish] has definitely taken money from some large corporations.” Some hoped that this would give DeGraw a fighting chance. Fish’s campaign was not available for comment.
At 8 PM on May 15, polls closed and the newly elected city commisioner was quickly revealed. Fish emerged solidly victorious, but the gap between him and DeGraw was smaller than that with any of Fish’s previous challengers at 32 percent.
Nick Fish will serve until 2022, barring any additional health issues. However, although DeGraw was ultimately unsuccessful in her bid for office, she captured the attention of a sizable population in the city.
“[The] sheer act of running this campaign while taking no corporate money and proving we can run incredibly viable candidate on a completely different model than anyone’s ever seen before is a really important thing to do,” DeGraw said. “I am proving to Portlanders that there’s an alternative and we need to continue running people power candidates so we can make the system actually work for people.”